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ITHACA, NY — Into the dining room at MIX Tapas Kitchen and Bar, out sweeps a Caesar salad. There’s lettuce sprinkled generously with Parmesan, but instead of croutons, it’s covered in crispy wontons, spiced cashews and a ginger aioli in place of the eponymous dressing.
It’s been half a year since the restaurant opened its doors on Elmira Road, and chef-owners Shayne and Mix Johnson have found their footing. MIX lives up to its name in more ways than one.
“I think our Caesar is very indicative of the whole menu. It’s something very familiar with kind of a unique twist,” service manager Anna Scheglov said. “It’s just a step up, something you’re not expecting.”
With a bevy of multi-ethnic share plates and a bright yet intimate atmosphere, to eat at MIX is to experience heartfelt, innovative dining.
Occupying the former location of the venerable Lucatelli’s, MIX is still relatively unknown despite a very loyal group of regulars.
“We’re a little out of the way, so it has to be a chosen destination,” said Scheglov. “But we have a lot going on once you get here.”
That’s no overstatement. The diverse array of 65+ dishes is both exciting and a little daunting, but the menu is helpfully organized: those in the left side column are more on the order of hors d’oeuvres than the right, which are closer to mains.
Overall, the portion sizes are about one and a half times the size of what most people would consider tapas. Depending on your appetite and food preferences, Scheglov usually advises 4-6 dishes per couple.
For indecisive eaters, the MIX Essentials tasting menu narrows the choice down even further to three courses of globe-spanning favorites, like the duck quesadilla, ricotta pecan ravioli and Sriracha chicken and Hanoi waffles, offered for $24.50 per person Monday – Thursday nights.
Smaller plates, bigger flavors
Since opening, MIX has scaled back the menu somewhat from its ambitious start—there’s no longer a raw bar or pizza —but the price point is more affordable and the vision more seasonally-focused, trading ahi tuna for pot pies, meatloaf cupcakes and grilled swordfish this winter.
The tapas-style refers to the way the dishes are prepared rather than a strictly small portion size, Scheglov said.
Not only are all of the menu items meant to be shared, but also they come out of the kitchen as soon as they are prepared.
With the timing taken care of by the servers, the aim is to let diners more fully enjoy their party’s company and indulge in the experience. That’s what was meant by the restaurant’s original name, MIX Social Dining.
But the inclusion of “social” caused some confusion, giving many Ithacans the impression they were going to end up at a communal table.
“People are calling saying we’ve heard a bunch of amazing things about the food, we want to come in, can we make sure we have a table without other people there,” said Scheglov.
The vibe is indeed vibrant, but not in an “I’m-eating-with-total-strangers” kind of way. If you do feel like socializing, there is an ample bar and couches for lingering over cocktails. Low-top tables take up the majority of the space, and the room is bisected by a row of colorful glass sculptures by Sean Kennedy.
A solo/duo endeavor
The restaurant was transformed from top to bottom by Mix and Shayne, their first solo endeavor since working together in the kitchen at Mahogany Grill for almost five years.
Prior to that, Mix began cooking at the age of 13, growing up in a village 10 hours from Bangkok, eventually moving to the capital to cook in several high profile restaurants where she would later meet Shayne. He got his start cooking in California, in an apprenticeship program in the San Francisco area. After working on the Sonoma Coast and Las Vegas, he met Mix and the two moved to upstate New York, where Shayne had family.
Most nights, it’s just Shayne and Mix by themselves holding down the kitchen, an impressive feat.
“We have a couple of cooks on the busier nights. That keeps us nailed down back there because there’s so much to do,” Shayne said. “It’s a pretty big menu, we spend a lot of time prepping it. It’s a lot more interconnected than it looks on the surface.”
Mix and Shayne have an easy-going dynamic both in and out of the kitchen. They both frequently appear in the dining room to talk to guests when the ticket orders slow down.
Quoting one guest’s comments, Mix said: “‘It’s such a big menu, how do you get that done? You’ve got to have like 20 people in the kitchen.’ I said, ‘No actually, just me and my husband,’ and they say ‘How?’. Well if you make it easy it will be easy, and if you make difficult, it will be difficult.”
Scheglov insists that she can always tell when it’s the husband-and-wife duo cooking instead of someone else. What really sets MIX apart, she says, is the level of care.
“They’re here five or six hours before we open everyday and past close.” she said. They spent eight months renovating the restaurant themselves before it opened, and at the end of the night, they still stay to talk to the service and front of house staff in addition to the guests. “It’s the same with the food; you put a lot of love in it.”
Mix certainly agrees. “A really key thing in Thailand: if you want to make your food taste really good, you have to cook from your heart.”
“This is my dream,” she said. “My dream come true.”
MIX is open for dinner seven nights a week: Sunday through Thursday 5 – 9 p.m., 5 – 10 p.m. Friday – Saturday, and 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. for share plate Sunday brunch. Visit http://www.mixithaca.com/ for menus, information on weekly specials and happy hours, and to reserve a table.